Thrift Store Death Spiral – Two
As a result of the time I spent in thrift store book sections, I found some real treasures. Those, I remember happily, were mainly passed along as gifts to friends. I remember with particular fondness finding one of Stephen King’s books in first edition. It was published under his nom de plume, Richard Bachman, including a fictional author’s photo and bio, which made it a rarity. It gave me immense pleasure to gift that to a childhood friend of mine who was very much a King completist. My own treasures were mainly reference books. My interest in gardening… well, I’ll spare you some obvious puns and simply tell you I was always on the look-out for titles on specific areas of horticulture. Like many who get a little obsessed with the subject, I badly wanted to grow orchids and other rare cultivars. Unfortunately, I hadn’t the right set-up or budget at the time.
Serendipitously, gardening and horticulture is an area of interest aided by a natural correlation between source material and relevance. That’s to say you’re not likely to find a book on desert gardening where there is no desert. Of course, as is true anywhere if you’ve an eye for it, it’s possible in a thrift store to catch a glimpse of the wheel of time in motion as trends in fashion, design, and aesthetic rise, fall, and rise again. The gardening world has it’s own trends and fads, some of them very distinctive. Terrariums and aquaculture were quite the thing back around 1977, apparently. Those have both evolved radically but as elements of interior design their resurgence has been subsumed, repeatedly, by larger forces and excluded by more powerful design strictures.
Apart from books, I centered my shopping on coffee mugs and cardigans, records, (too many) useless experiments with 8-Track, some minor furniture restoration projects, that kind of thing. I was never one for buying second hand appliances, those (by the time they get to a thrift shop) typically being useful only to people with some interest in tinkering. It wasn’t until I became homeless that I would come to depend on thrift stores for footwear and clothing. As a result of that necessity, I’ve tracked another sort of pattern developing in thrift stores, a worrying change in standards. If you’ve done any bargain hunting in the past ten years you’ll have noticed this change as well. It makes sense when you contextualize the life-cycle of a thrift store, but is easy to dismiss as unimportant or coincidental. When you zoom out a little, though, you may agree with me when I tell you what I think this pattern indicates.
(Most adults have a detailed awareness of the concept of supply and demand, I know, so please forgive me as I describe a version of it here for the purpose of framing.)
Normally, a retailer stocks items that have been manufactured to meet the demand of consumers. Consumer demand is something that depends on a lot of factors, not least being the amount of discretionary income available and a consumer’s willingness to spend. Typically the number of items available, cans of soup as an example, won’t far exceed the amount expected to sell in a given amount of time. This is fairly safe as an arrangement for all parties. The products consumers want are made available, and as they run out, more are manufactured and delivered. The consumer does not usually have to wait, and those involved in the process of producing, ordering, and transporting those products can safely assume they will be sold, which allows for planning and all of the correlative processes around businesses linked to retail sales. Because of the responsiveness and efficiency of production and shipping systems, those involved can respond to consumer behaviours fairly quickly, adjusting processes in the supply chain based on needs and expectations.
Thrift stores are unusual in the retail landscape because of their supply chain. For supply, thrift stores rely on behaviours that are based entirely in the consumption cycle. The improvised nature of that supply chain is vulnerable in some unusual ways. Its development and process involves a couple of important decisions. The cycle begins when a consumer buys an item, new. At some point, they decide they’ll discard the item and, instead of putting into the trash, they donate it. It’s pretty straightforward. While it is the nature of a consumer society to generate a steady-flowing stream of waste products as the cycle of demand, acquisition, and obsolescence proceeds, the introduction of re-consumption as a significant portion of that system has some problematic outcomes.
Thrift stores are a sort of outsider, a foreign influence, or, to borrow a word from two loves of mine, movies and gardening, they are a ‘grex.’ A grex is an unnatural or artificial hybrid. This is something you may already be aware of, as it’s a concept from botany mentioned in the 1978 movie, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ It’s proposed by one of the leads as a theory for the presence of the strange flowers that have started appearing in cities. While the film offers no explicit explanation of those unusual flowers, it’s safe to imagine they are the hybrid product of an alien life-form and an Earth-bound botanical native. You might also think of their function as akin to that of a virus, or perhaps the Xenomorph, living by diverting native resources towards producing undesirable outcomes not easily checked. As a description for what thrift stores represent, those flowers and their pods offer a pretty robust metaphorical hook.
As a group, people prefer to be lead. Our leaders are very effective at placation. As things exist right now, we live in a society that accepts the existence of poverty as a fact of life. Our society acknowledges the existence of chronic homelessness, hungry children, widespread deprivation, abuse of power, and innumerable ongoing problems. We dedicate resources to things like homeless shelters, holiday food drives, safe houses for abused people, and other stop-gap efforts. Yet collectively we do as little as possible to actually correct those problems. We settle for dedicating the minimum of resources and apply the lowest standard of effort. It achieves an easy-to-measure outcome and ticks some boxes on a form. We make ourselves complicit as we ignore the failures of our systems, trading away the lives of others for the comfort and safety of our personal worlds, keeping to our own small bubble. Sure, we sometimes wear pieces of ribbon, or go for a group run, a march, or retweet political ideas, often producing meaningful results. Some people volunteer, others work within the system, hoping to bring change in that way. The source of complex problems can take a long time to recognize, and even longer to know what to do about them. No matter the issue economics play an important role, both in the solution and the problem itself. Once we see the root of a problem, it is easier to imagine a way forward. Thrift stores, dollar stores, and other elements of the broader day-to-day of human life serve as indicators, as weather-vanes for an underlying reality. In a society that continues to only apply short-term fixes, spin, and tactics of division, problems will continue to propagate.